60 - Craig Brommers, American Eagle Outfitters
Conor Begley: There are very few people in the world that you're going to get to listen to that know apparel retail marketing better than the guest we have today. Craig was so gracious to share his time, and I know I learned a ton. Didn't realize how prominent American Eagle was, both from a retail presence and from an influencer perspective. They are really crushing it. Enjoy today's show, guys. Remember, be a friend, tell a friend and leave a review. We appreciate it. Thanks.
Speaker 2: Explore the minds and marketing strategies behind today's winning brands and businesses. Tap into the power of the creative economy, with Earned by CreatorIQ. Here's Conor Begley.
Conor Begley: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Earned. Today, we have a very amazing guest, Craig Brommers. Welcome to the show, Craig.
Craig Brommers: Hey, thanks, Conor. Good to be here.
Conor Begley: Yeah, so, Craig, your background is probably one of the most in- depth backgrounds when it comes to retail and apparel that I have come across. Congrats on everything you've achieved. It's super impressive.
Craig Brommers: I appreciate that, Conor. I joke that I've made my way through the American mall, but it has been a pinch me career. As you know, currently CMO at American Eagle, but previously at Gap, Abercrombie& Fitch, Calvin Klein, so it's been a real good ride.
Conor Begley: Yeah, absolutely. I think, if you look at it, so we pulled some data on you guys. You guys are the number 17 global brand when we track influencers, right? So you got 240 million in coverage in the last 12 months and you personally have worked at three out of the top 25 globally. And American Eagles ahead of Levi's, Abercrombie, Vans, Lululemon, Converse, you are kicking some butt over there. So congrats on that.
Craig Brommers: That's good to hear, Conor. I got to use that more often. I did not know that myself.
Conor Begley: Yeah, you're beating some of your old friends there. Cool. Well, let's start at the top, right? So I just interviewed the CMO of a really fast growing brand called Prose in the hair care space, right? And the first question that I asked her felt very topical, right, current day when it came to social and influencers. And obviously this is a topic that you guys are investing in, I would imagine, quite heavily, given just who your audience is. With that being said, it seems like there's been a lot of changes lately. It seems like there's something brewing both in terms of the channels that people are focusing on, right? TikTok versus Instagram versus whatever, as well as obviously a lot of the privacy changes are really affecting how efficient the spend has been when it comes to pure digital paid media, right? So talk to me about how you guys are adapting to those changes. And then I want to take a step back and really go through your career because there's a lot there.
Craig Brommers: Yeah. So Conor, American Eagle is the number one specialty retailer for Gen Z. And when you have the privilege of being so focused on a certain segment, you really go deep with that customer. And bar none we have the best damned consumer insights team in retail and we actually even have a 2000 person panel of people aged 15 to 25 that we can ask any question on any topic on any day. And we do. And to your point, we definitely are seeing some shifting in the social and digital landscape and I think two platforms are certainly gaining strength, gaining momentum, TikTok bar none, the number one most fascinating growth story from a social and digital perspective. And we have a really strong partnership with them. And then Snap, although there's been some not so favorable business press news on Snap, Gen Z continues to embrace the platform as a number one communication tool. And so to your point Conor, you are seeing some of the more legacy social platforms, Insta and Facebook probably being the two that come to mind most is perhaps decelerating as Gen Z seeks out authenticity, wants to share their real self, wants to have a little fun given the fact that the world is a shit show right now. And so TikTok and Snap seem to be the winners in the meta platforms. For a moment here are having to, I think, reassess where they live and where they evolve if they want to truly engage with Gen Z and Gen Alpha before that.
Conor Begley: Yeah, no that makes sense. Again, I think from what we track from a data perspective, at least in terms of branded content, Instagram's still the number one platform in terms of branded content. With that being said, you want to reverse that trend, you want it to be heading in the right direction and that's not going to be new news for them either. So a question I have, and it's interesting, Snapchat actually doesn't come up super frequently in these discussions. So when you're approaching Snapchat and you're thinking about it, what is your approach? How are you engaging with people there? Because again, it is primarily a messaging platform. Obviously they have their media section, but what are the tactics you're using to engage with Snapchat?
Craig Brommers: So I think we're now five minutes into this and I will finally use the term metaverse. That's the hottest thing in marketing these days. And very specifically to Snap, we think that they're ahead of the game right now in terms of augmented reality and unique retail experiences. And they honestly are one of the only places we found to date that we can actually generate millions and millions and millions of dollars of revenue in the so- called metaverse. And so we've opened these augmented reality popup virtual stores. And every time we do, as I publicly stated, we're making a couple of million dollars in a week or two with each set. So it leads us to believe that Gen Z while re- embracing their best self in the physical world is still interested in unique immersive shopping experiences in the virtual world. And Snap right now is doing the best in our opinion.
Conor Begley: Very cool. And the reality is, outside of the sales, there's, you create an image of the brand being very forward leaning, very technology forward and also, all those people had a special experience with the brand. Those are things that they maintain, will drive up LTV over time, all that stuff.
Craig Brommers: And I think, Conor, it probably brings up an interesting thing is that social media is not a peanut butter spread anymore. We really do have bespoke strategies around content and engagement by platform. And I think that you've kindly mentioned it, and I think that our commercial results also speak for themselves that we're winning in this marketplace because we are really diving deep within each of those channels and delivering at least what the user is telling us that they want to interact with.
Conor Begley: Well, you see such diverse communities, right? I think that's what a lot of it comes down to is like if you spend time on the different platforms, you realize there's literally just almost a different language, right, within each one. There's different inside jokes, there's different... Even though Instagram has reels and TikTok has obviously TikTok, just the people that are on it make a really big difference in terms of how you should engage with it, right?
Craig Brommers: I think you're right, Conor.
Conor Begley: Yeah.
Craig Brommers: And it's funny, as I reflect back on my career, I grew up in high control environments like a Calvin or A and F back in the heyday, and you really do have to let go. And so for example, on TikTok, about 99% of the content that we put out is creator produced. And so we may have a lightish brief, but we found that our own content does not perform as well as creator content. And so you're seeing Gen Z take control of the narrative and it has been uncomfortable as I've evolved, but it's paid off for us as well is, you have to understand that they're driving this and we're along for the ride.
Conor Begley: That is super cool to hear. 99% is a high percentage. I knew that there was a lot of brands doing, obviously reusing UGC or using creator produced content. We just did a summit in LA and the head of creators at Honest Beauty, the whole group, was saying, she was like, yeah, they asked the performance of branded content versus creator content. It's like, not even close. Dramatic difference.
Craig Brommers: Not even close.
Conor Begley: Yeah.
Craig Brommers: No. You're right.
Conor Begley: Which is crazy, right? You would think that you'd be pretty good at creating content about your own brand. But-
Craig Brommers: Even on Insta, to your point, is still important part of our ecosystem, we're finding that LoFi content is also beginning to perform better than probably the highly stylized content that you and I have been used to on Insta for years. So there is a shift and we at American Eagle are embracing that shift and I think other marketers and other brands will have to as well.
Conor Begley: Yeah, absolutely. To verify your observations, that summit we did with TikTok. We did one in LA and New York, the whole trip, one of the stats they trotted out was how LoFi content performs significantly better on TikTok. I would imagine it also does on Instagram. But it's just funny. It's funny how counterintuitive that is, but it feels real, right?
Craig Brommers: Yeah.
Conor Begley: I think that's part of the reason that... Well, anyways, let's keep going. Actually-
Craig Brommers: I think also, Conor, it's a little bit generational as well. So one thing that I've observed, our team has observed about Gen Z is, they've got a little hustle in them and they really do believe that they could be the next something. And in fact some of the biggest creators that we have worked with, the Addison Raes of the world, she was just a normal kid in a normal town in Louisiana. And so I think that hustle, that entrepreneurial spirit is something that Gen Z already digged and I think platforms like TikTok are allowing that side of Gen Z to explode on steroids.
Conor Begley: Yeah. In some ways I think that just the distribution model that TikTok has set up encourages that behavior, right? Because it's not about like, " Oh you don't have to have a big audience to get discovered, right? You just have to create something that's really interesting and entertaining and fun." I've met, I don't know, a half dozen people that are either marketers or just people I know like, " Oh yeah, I had a video blow up on TikTok and become viral and I've got a hundred thousand fans now." And it's like, " What? How did that happen? It's crazy."
Craig Brommers: They've cut out the middle machine, they don't need, again, the machine to help build them. The algorithm can build them and great content can come from anywhere. It truly can.
Conor Begley: Yeah, absolutely. Well let's take a step back. I still have a lot of questions about social and all those things and obviously you guys are on the leading edge there. But let's take a step back in your career. So you spent a lot of time at the most iconic or some of the most iconic apparel brands in the world. Obviously again, have toured the mall, which is great, which was big during my younger years. So across those brands, like you mentioned with, I think one of the more interesting things you said in terms of American Eagle is, we've got this panel of 2000 thousand 15 to 24 year olds that we can survey at any time. And so you know who my target audience is and are laser focused on that, right? What have you seen across these other brands, whether it's Calvin or A and F or Gap or Speedo, because these are brands that have stood the test of time? And you assume that brands do that, but there's a lot that don't, right? There's a lot that die or at least become a shadow of what they were before. What have you seen that has been consistent across these iconic brands that has made them stand the test of time?
Craig Brommers: So I think, Conor, iconic brands run towards who they are, although you have to adapt your storytelling to modern times. And so I think that's why a company like American Eagle or a brand like Calvin Klein has actually stood the test of time because at the root of who these brands are, they haven't actually dramatically changed from their founding in the late'70s. I think when you try to adapt too much to whatever is hot in that very moment and forget who you are, you can get in trouble pretty quickly. And so, as I reflect back on all of the great brands I've had the privilege to participate in, you have your brand book, you know who you are, you have some guardrails, you modernize the way that you're expressing yourself, but you really understand who that is. AE, American Eagle was ahead of its time and actually probably the antithesis of what we were at Abercrombie and Fitch. A and F was exclusive, cool kid. We told you what you wanted to look like, what you should wear. And back then the store associates were actually more focused on looking good and making sure-
Conor Begley: I was a store associate by the way at one point.
Craig Brommers: And so making sure they looked good and making sure the product was displayed properly, but honestly not a lot of customer service going on. And so-
Conor Begley: Hey.
Craig Brommers: ...what AE was able to do is flip that upside down, right? And so more inclusive, bring your true self. Our product is the blank canvas from which you can express your true self. And I think then that's only evolved further over the last year or two when people are expressing themselves and maybe even a different part of themselves in the digital world, Metaverse, gaming, whatever it may be. So I guess, again, to answer your question directly, iconic brands tend to have a very clear vision of who they are and stick with that true time. And I think that's part of the secret sauce of success.
Conor Begley: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it's got to be interesting having seen that time at A and F, right, Abercrombie and Fitch. Obviously, I saw it on a very personal level, which was funny. It was a side job in high school, right? But it was great, I really enjoyed it. But yeah, I think the title even at the time was called, you were a brand model or something like that.
Craig Brommers: That's right. Yeah.
Conor Begley: Model was in the actual language.
Craig Brommers: Yeah. And obviously, they're evolving, Victoria's Secret is attempting to evolve and ultimately the consumer will decide, are these authentic evolutions that feel real and I will participate in or are any of those companies frauds and not walking the talk. So it'll be interesting to see what develops. Those are two of the stories obviously, there's others in our industry to follow as well.
Conor Begley: A hundred percent. So we're going to talk a lot about social, but I do think that your experience and knowledge when it comes to the retail sector is also incredibly fascinating, right? So I would imagine, you've gotten to see a big evolution in the way that people shop in retail, the way that, like you said, associates interact with consumers in retail, that entire experience, how it's integrated within the digital landscape. So how have things changed from your early days working in retail to today? Because American Eagle has a very large retail presence as well, right?
Craig Brommers: inaudible Conor, yeah.
Conor Begley: So, how has that changed?
Craig Brommers: Yeah, Conor, We still have the second largest physical store fleet in North America. But you know what? Remember this, Gen Z is inherently social and social does mean the physical world and of course it means the digital and social world as well. And so we don't look at either of those as independent entities. I think we probably did as an industry five to 10 years ago. Now it's, " Do I know you Conor and can I surprise and delight and anticipate your needs no matter where you interact with our brands?" It could be in physical format, again, it could be on our e- commerce site, it could be in the app, maybe could be in the metaverse. So I think that you just have to understand that Gen Z is always connected, always, but they have relished the ability to get back out in the real world and they're living their best life right now, revenge living almost from things that have been taken away. So I think what we're trying to do is to bridge those two worlds to create the best shopping experience for Gen Z. And I actually think that even though the last two- ish years have been a bit scary, there are moments in our industry where we really had to look ourselves in the mirror and say, how are we going to get through this? I actually think we've come out of it stronger. I think the brands that are winning are stronger and I think the customer experience is also stronger.
Conor Begley: So let's talk about those last couple years because I think one of the things that's been really interesting for me to observe, I think I might have talked about this on a previous episode, but at the beginning, right, there was this discussion of e- commerce has accelerated in 10 years. You've probably seen those trend lines where it's like, " Oh wow, percent of retail that's coming through e- com is through the roof, right? Way ahead of the trend line." And then over the last year or so, year to 18 months, back to the trend line, right? And one of the descriptions that I heard that I thought was most interesting was, and I think this applies again to your audience, which is probably more school related than work related, but a lot of people are still working from home. That's a trend that hasn't gone back to the trend line, right, in terms of going and working into the office. And when I'm in my house all day long, the last thing I want to do is shop in my house still. I want to go out, experience a physical world. I like this idea of revenge living. I love it. And so again, if I'm a student and I'm doing a lot of my stuff virtually, I want to go out and see my friends, do shopping in person, do that whole thing. Now that you've had time to reflect on that period, which again, isn't fully done, but what have been some of your learnings during that period? What are the things that you took away from it? Because-
Craig Brommers: Yeah. A couple things come to mind, Conor for that question. One is, obviously the pandemic had a profound effect, but yet it is still very hard to shift general consumer behavior even under a pandemic condition. So to your point, things have settled back into the general trend that they were checking on in 2019. And that is, the digital will continue to grow perhaps more modestly, but will continue to grow in probably physical stores will continue to slow down but still be a majority of the way that we shop here in the US. On the physical storefront, you're going to see the best stores get even better. So if you're taking the time paying the gas money to go to some lifestyle center, some mall, you not only want a great store experience, but you want entertainment, you want your senses to be engaged and you want to be social. So you're going to see that continue. And then from a digital perspective, again, I hinted at it with those Snapchat augmented reality stores because I think we are entering a new phase of digital commerce where engaging, entertaining experiences are also going to be important. And listen, we're in early, early, early, early days on this so- called metaverse and we've been testing and trying lots of things. It's Roblox, it's Snapchat, it's other things. Our hope is that, that test, that learning, and even some of the failures that we've had along the way will keep us three or four steps ahead of our competition and more importantly, three or four steps ahead of the customer so we can surprise and delight them. So I think that again, it's all about engaging entertainment experiences on both sides of the coin, physical and digital.
Conor Begley: Yeah. That makes a ton of sense. I like that it is tough to change consumer behavior, right? I think you really have to adapt to it. You can push it forward a little bit, right, but ultimately, people are going to do what they want to do, right? And if you are asking them to go outside of the things that they want to do, I think that it's generally unsuccessful, right?
Craig Brommers: Yeah.
Conor Begley: Frankly, I think there was a big push around live commerce over the last, call it five to 10 years where it's like, hey, I'm in Instagram or I'm in TikTok and I want to go buy immediately an app. And it's like, " It's just not how consumers shop in western countries." That might be how it works in China and maybe that will get here one day today. But we've seen failure after failure after failure across every one of the channels. And it's like, " Guys, we've seen this playbook. It's not how we operate."
Craig Brommers: And it's interesting, Conor, even then again, we've tried and we also have not seen the scale that you cross your fingers for. But in every trial you learn something.
Conor Begley: Yep.
Craig Brommers: And when we were trying live shopping over the last couple of years, one of the insights is that our customers really like engaging with our store associates. And so we have 35, 000 store associates, predominantly Gen Z. And so we've actually activated those store associates to be part of a widely successful influencer program that now produces some of our most engaging content across all of our social platforms. So again, I guess what I'm getting to as you think about being a modern marketer today is, innovation is still important and on the face of it, maybe what you're trying to achieve in this case, live shopping at scale, may not have played out exactly how you'd seen, but there's still nuggets that we're taking away and we're applying to other parts of our business. And that's, I think, the mandate for my industry is continue to push ahead because we are in the battle for attention. This is the attention war. And so it's retail versus travel versus streaming versus whatever it might be. And we got to continue to up our game to, again, create experiences that demand people's attention.
Conor Begley: So I really want to dive into that topic because it's fascinating for me personally. I know that one of the things that just blows me away is, we'll talk to brands, very big brands, right? And we work with all the largest luxury brands, all the big apparel brands, whatever, a lot of them I should say. And they have a hard time getting head count for six, seven people to interact with digital influencers online. And yet they'll have 10,000 in- store associates. And it's like, " How do you have that experience in person, and then digitally, you have somebody who's got tens of thousands of fans, is actively talking about your brand and here's crickets on the other side because you can't hire 10 people to interact with this person?" It is shocking. And I think we interviewed Robert, the CMO of Gucci and he's like, " Yeah, we've got a staff, I believe it is 600, that sole job is doing digital interactions, personal shopping experiences, et cetera, with people that want to interact that way." So talk to me about those 35,000 associates. What are the specific tactics you're doing with them? Do you have any tools that you're using or any places that you're working with that could get a shout out, that'd be great too. But how are you activating those people? How are you bringing them into that digital experience?
Craig Brommers: Yeah, one thing we learned during the pandemic Conor was, we wanted to allow the shopper to engage with us wherever, however, whenever they want to. And that really actually pushed a lot of interesting innovation forward. And I'm a big fan of never waste a good crisis and we clearly were in as an industry in crisis in 2020, but that got an idea to execution in record speeds. So a couple of things come to mind. One is, we actually do have a new app called AE Live and that's now migrated onto our e- com site where you can set up a styling appointment with an associate from the comfort of your home, comfort of your apartment. And that was born out of an insight that I still miss having that personal touch, but either I don't feel comfortable going into a mall, I don't have time or again given the gas situation in this year, I don't want to spend the money.
Conor Begley: Yep.
Craig Brommers: So I think that's one great example. I think two, we've seen an explosion in our app in terms of usage. I won't give you an exact percentage, but from what I gather, we are well ahead of most other specialty retailers. Why is that important? That's because our loyalty program was relaunched in middle of 2020 as well and has been a phenomenal success at rewarding people for again, their loyalty and engagement with our brand. So that's been great.
Conor Begley: Yep.
Craig Brommers: And then as Gen Z again is excited to get back out in the real world, we're activating more live events, more localized events than ever before in that 900 store fleet. And that has also been a pretty big boon. So I think that that strategic intent of wherever, however, whenever has really unlocked some innovative ideas here in American Eagle.
Conor Begley: Very cool. In terms of that, call it digital shopping experience, I think the other thing you didn't mention is access, right? So 900 stores is a ton, but there's a lot of people that literally aren't physically nearby one, right?
Craig Brommers: Yeah.
Conor Begley: And don't have that opportunity to have that shopping experience. I think if you were to look at E- com actually where it has the deepest penetration is middle America where you don't have access to every store within 30 minutes of you, right? But anyways, what I was going to say is, obviously that makes sense at the beginning of the pandemic. It sounds like you've continued to see engagement with that despite the fact that things have really opened up or maybe even acceleration in terms of engagement with that part of the experience. Is that accurate?
Craig Brommers: It is. And again, Gen Z is always on the cusp of what's new, what's next. And they actually like engaging with some of this innovation, Conor, we set up a AE Store inside of NBA 2K, which as you know, is one of the most engaged with games on the planet and we saw a great success there. So I think it's surprise, it's delight, it's engaging and that's what our customer base is really telling us.
Conor Begley: Yeah, absolutely. So let's talk a little bit about TikTok and then I want to go into your background because I think that what you've achieved in such a short period of time from a career perspective is something that a lot of people will have an opportunity to learn from. So let's talk TikTok very specifically. So I've been asking this question a lot because I think TikTok is an interesting channel in that growing very, very fast. And I'm a huge advocate of it, huge personal user of it. But at the same time I think that because they are promoting what is the most entertaining content rather than just what is the content from the people that you follow, it makes branded content from creators more challenging, right, to have the same effects. And obviously, we tended to focus historically on organic content, which we'll do better on TikTok, but still there's just a lot less of it than say Instagram. So what have been the tactics that you guys have found successful there? Because I think you guys have had a lot of success on TikTok that have worked. What are you doing there?
Craig Brommers: Couple of things, one creator first, you and I talked about it before is, this is a creator led platform and we have a tops down, bottoms up creator strategy. So we have the scale and the budget to be able to work with some of the biggest creators, but honestly, we see tremendous success at that mid and even nano level as well. So I think it's a diverse mix of creators and lean into that community first. Two is, the team is not afraid to try things in and I'm not afraid to say, " Go try things." And as I mentioned previously, failure is an important thing here at American Eagle. It's a good thing here at American Eagle. Because if you're not failing, you're not pushing yourself. And so I love the fact that our team is not scared and we've stubbed our toes a few times here or there, but we pick ourselves up, learn from that and move on. Three, I think it's a platform that really demands a nimble team. What do I mean by that? Our sister brand Aerie had one of those fantastic viral events. They have a legging for women called the Crossover in a creator, actually, not even a creator, a normal person. You posted something about that and this thing went bonkers viral. Selling months after months after months after months. And it wasn't because the Aerie team had partnered with this person, but it was about what they did afterwards to fan the flames of morality. So I think nimbleness is another thing. I will also give the TikTok team that we work with right on up to the top, credit for listening, for taking feedback and understanding where we as an industry and where we as a company would like to go in this particular space. And so I think that you have a platform that is, I found, our team has found very open to that. So we're really bullish on TikTok, clearly Gen Z is bullish as well because they're spending a lot of time on that platform. So I think some of the most exciting days for TikTok are still ahead of us.
Conor Begley: Yeah. I will say we've had a very similar experience when it comes to TikTok, just very open to collaboration, very proactive in wanting to work together very... They're giving you the tools, pointing you in the right direction, but again, very open to feedback, which is surprising, right?
Craig Brommers: Yeah.
Conor Begley: So yeah, it's been a very different than I would say other experiences that we've had historically. And obviously, well, here it makes sense. But yeah.
Craig Brommers: I was going to say, I do think, and I've said this specifically to them, and they're very aware and working as hard as they can is, TikTok is at that stage that Snap was where it was the wild wild west. And we knew as marketers that a lot of eyeballs and attention were being vacuumed up by that channel. But at some point, what does it all mean in measurement? I think is probably on the minds of many marketers in many larger organizations today. And again, they're working on it fast and furiously, but I think that the CFO knocks on the door in the next six to 12 to 18 months, say, " Hey, I know we love TikTok, but I have a lot more data and a lot more measurement behind some of the more mature channels, what is TikTok giving us?" So I think that's the next phase for them while they continue to do the amazing, exciting stuff that they're doing from just a creative and brand perspective.
Conor Begley: Yeah. And again, I think we focus a lot on measurement, right, and we also have some challenges, right, in terms of what data can we get and all these kinds of things. And yeah, I think the thing that we've observed is, there's a lot of people on TikTok growing very, very, very fast. I use it a lot. But again, branded content's dramatically lower, significantly lower. And so brands want to do it, but I think it's hard to know exactly how to, what is working, how do I really put money into this in a meaningful way that I know I'm getting something back out of it, right?
Craig Brommers: And I think, the interesting thing about TikTok is that it changes like the speed of lightning. And so I think it's harder to actually say, " Here are best practices. Go create content around these best practices." Because it seems to us as that algorithm continues to shift and reward content. And again, I think Gen Z is moving so darn fast that I'm a proponent of experiment, try, flex, be nimble, and hopefully you'll finally hit something. And again, I think creator led is the most important thing.
Conor Begley: Yeah. I think that that a hundred percent makes sense. I think I love your concept of what do you do after you go viral? How do you maximize, I remember this happening with Ocean Spray, I don't know if you remember that video.
Craig Brommers: inaudible.
Conor Begley: There was a guy riding the skateboard, right?
Craig Brommers: I don't.
Conor Begley: And they sent him a truck full of Ocean Spray and they did this, they did that, they got him engaged, I think he met the artist, blah, blah, blah. I think that was... That part of the process, how do you adapt afterwards? You have both the marketing angle of things, but you also have... This puts a lot of stress on supply chain, right? You would've loved to not be sold out of that every other day, right, and actually be generating the revenue that's sitting there. So it creates unique challenges when you don't control the medium of communication when it can be so unpredictable.
Craig Brommers: Right.
Conor Begley: Okay, so let's dive into your background a little bit or your personal career. So you got to become a senior vice president within 10 years of graduating from grad school and obviously you're now CMO at one of the best brands in the world. For others that want to follow that path, are interested in pursuing a similar career, what would be your recommendations to them? What would be the advice that you'd give to them?
Craig Brommers: Yeah, the first advice I always give to someone is, do what you love and love what you do. And I think that if you use that philosophy, you're going to find opportunities that bring out the best of you. And while I have a family to feed, I have a mortgage to pay and certainly, compensation is important, what's more important to me is the experiences that I have at these different companies. So I think that is something that has helped lead me through my career. Second, I think having a bit of focus on where you want to go and communicating that to people. What do I mean by that? I think people want to help each other, and so mentors have been very important in my career. I've reached out to people that I haven't known and asked for favors. And again, people seem to be wanting to help. So if you have a little bit of clarity even early in your career, I think that certainly helps. Three, I think, understanding what success looks like in each of these gigs is important. And being real clear with your boss, your cross- functional partners, your team. And I think that's important. And listen, I have had the privilege of being at a couple of different places and I think that that requires the understanding that in this modern workplace is that it's rarer to find someone who is at a company for 10, 15, 20 years. So this is just a fact. I'm not saying it's a fact for me, but it's a fact that the modern CMO in America lasts 2. 8 years before he or she moves on to their next opportunity. So I think being excited by change and being able to pivot is something that has been helpful. And then finally, being self- aware of your skill set. And I think that I personally have developed a skill set that really nicely matches iconic brands and certainly, iconic American brands during times of change and I've been able to come in and our teams have been able to have impact.
Conor Begley: That CMO lifespan is a really interesting statistic. I hadn't heard it before. Makes sense. Aligns with what my expectations would be. But what's interesting about that is I know for me it's like, man, I feel like two years in you're just getting going, right? That's when you're starting to fully crank. What is it that you think causes there to be so much turnover within that? And a lot of it is self- selected too. It's not just people not having a choice in the matter, right?
Craig Brommers: Yeah.
Conor Begley: But what is it that you think causes that turmoil? And what do you think is the ideal length, right? What do you think is the ideal tenure at a brand to actually have the impact and also not become stagnant from a career perspective?
Craig Brommers: Honestly, Conor, I think there's a bit of confusion in corporate America about what a modern CMO is supposed to be. And the reality is that every organization needs a different kind of CMO and none of us are cut from a cookie cutter place anymore. And so, some of us might lean a little bit heavier to brands. Some of us might lean a little bit heavier to digital. Some of us might lean a little bit more to commercial. Some of us might lean toward data. And that's why I mentioned a moment ago is, really defining what success looks like for that role. And making sure the CEO, the board, understand what you're bringing to the table, I think actually could help elongate a CMOs lifespan because there's a lot of mismatches out there to be quite honest. And so that, I think that's a bummer for both sides, right? I don't know if there is a ideal lifespan. And for me, in American Eagle, especially with this younger demo up tap dancing and learning shit everyday, the pat answer would be, until you feel like you've given enough, you've learned enough and you're ready to move on. I'm not so sure that is the case around here because Gen Z will graduate and Gen Alpha will be on to us. But I think that that mismatch of skill and then just a little bit of a confusion of what do you need from the marketing team is probably something that causes that shorter lifespan for CMOs.
Conor Begley: It's really interesting the way that you phrase that, and I hadn't actually heard it phrased that way, but it aligns with an observation that I've had. So the woman I just interviewed, her name's Megan Streeter, she's a CMO at Prose, a CMO at a company called Deva Curl, had a long career at Estee Lauder, L'Oreal. She's been in marketing beauty companies for almost 20 years, 19 years, and has sold two of those from very small to over a hundred million dollars in sales, sold those, et cetera, so she's been very successful. And again, in a lot of ways it mirrors your own career in that you've had this deep and long background in retail apparel brands now obviously different target customers, different products, but again, pretty similar in terms of the actual product that you're selling, et cetera, and you've been successful along the way consistently. And we see this in technology. There's a company called Workday that always comes to mind for me, where it was like guys started the first HR software system back when you didn't even have SaaS, right? There was no internet. And then sold that for a ton of money. They went to the next one and did it again, go into the next one, did it again. Or if you look at Frank Slootman and what he's doing at Snowflake, same thing. It's the same company three times in a row basically, but new versions of it. And I see it really frequently where you see people move industries and it's like not everything transfers. And I find the success rate to be quite a bit lower in my observation. What's your opinion here in terms of that as a concept, sticking with a category over a long period of time, even though you're moving within different brands within that category? Do you think that's been important to your own personal success?
Craig Brommers: I think it has, but again, there are people... To each zone, there are people that very successfully pivot from one industry to the next. Conor, I think for me, retail provided the adrenaline that I was looking for as a professional. So every hour of everyday I get a sales read and often the bat phone rings after that and we got to do something because sales are softer, or boy, there's a product that's really blowing up in a positive way, how can we juice that? And so, I have found retail so fascinating because it's a constant game and tweaking of messaging, of content, of promo of lines and all that. So that for me has worked really well. But again, there are other CMOs who have had really successful careers and they've pivoted from industry to industry. As I've advanced in my career, I am part of a CMO community now where I do get to interact with amazing marketers from amazing brands. I'm always fascinated by what my professional day looks like compared to other CMOs in other industries. And sometimes they're like, " Wow, that's your day? That's so weird because my day doesn't even look close to that." And yet, she's a fantastic, successful CMO. I think I have a bit of game in me as well. So it's again, going back probably to do what you love, love what you do.
Conor Begley: Yeah.
Craig Brommers: And retail is that beautiful balance of art and science and I've been super privileged to be on this wild ride.
Conor Begley: A hundred percent. Well, let's do one last fun end of show question. So I'd be curious how the different brands you've worked at have affected both your personal and your family's closets. Are you required when you go to a new brand to remove all of the products from the previous brand and start over? How has that affected your own personal closet?
Craig Brommers: Yeah, Conor, I think the biggest beneficiary of my moves in my career have been Goodwill because-
Conor Begley: Okay.
Craig Brommers: ...to your point, you take the entire closet and you dump it in the car and you drive it over to Goodwill and say, " Here you go." But you can't work at the number one jean seller in America, American Eagle and still have an Abercrombie sweatshirt. You can't work at Gap and still be wearing Calvin Klein underwear or something. So, it is a wholesale change. My wife and I do have two teenage daughters here at home and you would think I'd be very cool to them right now because I met Gen Z's number one retailer. I have a little bit of credit every once in a while, but I'm still dad, so I think I'm cooler to their friends than them. But I think they're pretty excited that their dad is at AE, and again, their generation so much identifies with this brand, so they're happy to get that employee discount and rock some AE jeans at school.
Conor Begley: I can imagine. Well, I really appreciate it, Craig. I know I learned a lot today. This could have gone twice as long on my end, but I'm glad we got to what we did get to. And congrats again on all the success and for being so helpful to other people taking time out to do stuff like this. And excited to watch you continue to crush it at AE.
Craig Brommers: Thanks, Conor. It's been a lot of fun.
Conor Begley: Awesome. Bye, Craig.
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For our 60th episode of Earned, we’re bringing you a titan of the retail industry: Craig Brommers. Craig is currently the CMO of Gen Z-favorite apparel brand American Eagle Outfitters, but his previous work experience spans across iconic brands like Calvin Klein, Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Speedo. We start the interview by learning how American Eagle has navigated shifting momentum around legacy social platforms following the rise of TikTok. Craig also shares why the brand is investing in another Gen Z-favorite platform: Snapchat. We then hear Craig’s take on augmented reality, and why he thinks it will become a key way to provide unique retail experiences. Next, we ask Craig what qualities he’s consistently observed about iconic brands that help them stand the test of time, before switching gears to the future of retail in today’s digital world. We then dive back into TikTok, and Craig emphasizes that brands looking to make a splash on the creator-led platform need a “creator-first” approach. To close the show, Craig gives sage advice to those looking to grow their career.